By Ross Colvin and Shyamantha Asokan
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - In one of the most highly anticipated verdicts in Indian legal history, a judge will rule on Tuesday whether four men are guilty of raping a woman on a bus in New Delhi and also murdering her, a charge that could see them hanged if convicted.
The verdicts cap a seven-month trial, often held behind closed doors, that was punctuated dramatically by a fifth defendant hanging himself in his jail cell. Outside the court, the case has sparked a national debate about the treatment of women in the world's second most populous country.
"We live every day, we die every day for this verdict. Our child, before she died, said such people should be burnt alive," the father of the victim told Reuters in an interview.
Indian law prohibits naming the woman victim, but Indian media have dubbed her Nirbhaya, a Hindi word meaning fearless.
Her parents have built a wooden shrine in their bedroom to commemorate her. It contains two framed and garlanded photographs of her along with school trophies, books and dolls she played with as a child. The family received the three-bedroom apartment as a gift from the government after her death.
"To fulfil her last wish, with the help of all the evidence the court has, they must not be spared at any cost. They should be hanged and nothing else," her father said.
The four accused men have pleaded not guilty. While the verdicts are due on Tuesday, any sentencing would take place later.
Prosecutors allege that bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta, and unemployed Mukesh Singh lured the woman and a male friend onto the bus on the night of December 16 as the pair returned home from watching a movie at a shopping mall in south Delhi.
As the bus drove through the streets of the capital, the men repeatedly raped and tortured the 23-year-old with a metal bar before dumping her and her friend, naked and semi-conscious, on the road, prosecutors said. Her friend later recovered, but the woman's internal injuries were so severe that she died in a Singapore hospital two weeks after the attack.
Two of the suspects, Gupta and Sharma, said they were at a party in a park when the attack took place. Akshay Singh said he was hundreds of kilometres away in his village in Bihar.
Mukesh Singh also denied being present, but during the trial he changed his story and said he had been driving the bus. He said his three co-accused had been on the bus, but he insisted he had not seen anything as the interior lights had been switched off after the victim and her friend had boarded.
The brutality of the attack shocked even in India, where newspapers daily publish a grim litany of sex crimes against women. India is the worst place among G20 countries to be a woman, according to a global poll last year by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Under pressure to show results, the government set up a special "fast-track" court to try the accused quickly. Rape trials in India's congested courts typically take anywhere from five to 10 years to complete.
The men have been charged with gang rape, robbery, kidnapping and murder. The latter charge carries the possibility of the death penalty, although trial judge Yogesh Khanna has the discretion to sentence them to life imprisonment instead.
BLOODY VEHICLE, CCTV FOOTAGE
India rarely executes death row prisoners but there is huge public pressure on the government to hang the men if they are found guilty.
In March, the fifth accused, Ram Singh, hanged himself from the grille in the ceiling of his prison cell. Officials said he had made a noose from the mat he slept on.
A teenager tried separately in the same case was sentenced to three years in juvenile detention last month, the maximum penalty that could be imposed because of his age.
When Judge Khanna opens proceedings on Tuesday it will be in a packed courtroom across the road from a shopping mall where the victim and her friend had watched the film "Life of Pi". During the trial, he heard 85 prosecution and 17 defence witnesses in a total of 117 hearings.
Among those who testified were the investigators who traced the bus using CCTV footage from a hotel and found the victim's blood inside the vehicle, according to a police report. The victim's male friend identified all of the accused.
Defence lawyers and prosecutors said they expect Khanna to be brief, reading out the charges against each of the accused and then delivering his verdicts. They do not anticipate that he will give reasons for his rulings.
Whatever the verdicts, the case has left an indelible mark on Indian society. Thousands of people took to the streets after the attack to protest against the government's poor record of keeping women safe and putting rapists behind bars.
A law passed in March provides for stricter punishments on gender crimes. It punishes repeat rape offenders with death, criminalises voyeurism and stalking and makes acid attacks, gang rape and trafficking specific offences.
Women's rights groups have welcomed the measures but say they do not go far enough, terming them "token gestures" from a government that is still plagued, like much of Indian society, by patriarchal attitudes.
Newspapers and television news stations have stepped up coverage of gender crimes, social media sites are full of debate and even Bollywood stars and cricketers are joining campaigns to promote women's safety.
But a random Reuters street survey of about 40 women in New Delhi found that, despite the measures announced by the government, most women do not feel any safer.
At the bus stop where "Nirbhaya" began her fateful journey, student Sania Hashmi, 21, said women were still in peril.
"As long as we have a patriarchal society this thing is not going to change. I don't think there is any girl in our country at large who hasn't experienced molestation," she said.
(Writing by Ross Colvin, additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty, Nita Bhalla, Anurag Kotoky, Aditya Kalra and Anuja Jaiman; Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel)